Strictly Ballroom, Piccadilly Theatre
Simply brilliant. Strangely breath-taking.
Strictly Ballroom the musical was everything I hoped it would be and worried it wouldn’t deliver. Bringing this classic that I’ve loved for 26 years to the West End stage is an audacious move, but it works. That’s the key. It would work for someone who’s never seen the film, and it works for those of us whose videos wore out at that moment Scott moved his hips just so….
It is held together by Will Young as Wally Strand, a new character that acts as narrator (taking all the best lines, that previously belonged to the kids in the film). He opens singing Love is in the Air in a broad Aussie accent. It takes a moment, but this too works. It’s an odd musical in a way as none of the rest of the cast gets a whole number, with Young taking the lion’s share and then some of the singing. But as and the band wheel from Tchaikovsky to Public Enemy through an extraordinary (and very Baz Luhrmann) mash-up of Billy Idol and George Michael it’s probably the first moment you see all the elements come together most fully.
All the cast are superb. I especially liked Richard Grieve as Les and Anna Francolini as Shirley. And the moment that Ferdinand Mira demonstrates his mastery and control as Rico shows Scott what a Paso Doble really is will take your breath away.
The staging is also great. It keeps the energy flowing kinetically which is essential for a show that never really stands still. And if Catherine Martin doesn’t get a best costume, Olivier, to add to her Oscars there’s no justice. The things that woman has done with sequins are a glittery miracle.
The show is close enough to the original to please diehard fans (though no Rhumba Des Burros – bastards!). But it also has a few little tricks up its sleeve. A sparkly hat here, a throwaway remark there and it has a very post-2016 in-joke. It develops the characters of Tina Sparkle and her agent beyond the original and Les has more chance to shine.
The theme that runs through Strictly Ballroom is freedom, something creator Baz Luhrmann has returned to repeatedly. The play is a celebration of freedom to and through dance. It’s a small parable of breaking free of control. But it lifts the hearts of all who – at whatever age – feel the need to burst forth. If it’s Fran, Shirley, Doug or Scott we identify with, we all end up on our feet cheering them along at the end.
Strictly Ballroom is on at the Piccadilly Theatre, tickets from £15 and is booking until October 2018